For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Moving Towards a Capability for Meaningful Labor"

by Weidel, Timothy (2018)


Martha Nussbaum argues that the capability approach to human development is grounded in an intuitive conception of what a life worthy of human dignity entails. This image is coupled with a conception of truly human functionings as a measure for development. It is not enough to establish what goods people require, but rather to consider what they can actually do or become with those goods. Nussbaum acknowledges that the philosophical grounding for her list of central human capabilities is influenced by Aristotle through the early Marx. Despite admitting this influence, I argue that Nussbaum's incorporation omits a central facet of Marx's image of truly dignified humans: the importance of meaningful labor. This omission seriously undercuts the possibility of the capabilities approach providing persons with a life worthy of human dignity. In this paper, I develop and defend an argument for including a capability for meaningful labor in Nussbaum's list of central human capabilities. After an explication of Marx's understanding of a fully human life, I will discuss the limits of Nussbaum's capabilities list with respect to the topic of meaningful labor. I also consider how Nussbaum's discussion of a capability to hold property elucidates both the necessity and feasibility of a capability for meaningful labor. Lastly, I consider some potential political implications of this proposed capability.

Key Passage

Despite her careful explication of Marx’s sense of a truly human life grounded in species-being, Nussbaum has neglected to take up the element of Marx’s conception of species-being that runs as an undercurrent through all of the aspects discussed above: the activity of labor. For Marx, the fully human person is actively shaping her world and her consciousness by laboring and producing objects that satisfy her needs. Without the possibility of a productive outlet (and that productive outlet being of a quality that allows one to utilize practical reasoning), a person is living a life that is for all intents and purposes not human. (p.74)


Marx, Meaningful Work, Political Economy, Nussbaum, Dignity


Meaningful Work

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